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Ten winter climbing tips

Ten winter climbing tips
5 February 2014 No comments

The 13/14 winter is shaping up to be a vintage season for UK ice climbers. With superb conditions across much of the Scottish highlands, the appeal of ice climbing has captivated the imaginations of more people than ever. If you're one of them and are thinking about trying your hand at something more challenging, Emily Pitts from Womenclimb offers her advice on essential skills and gear to ensure you become a safe and competent winter climber...

  • Skills – Technical

    Ropework, crampon use and axe use, how to build snow anchors, what gear to use and how to use it efficiently and safely.These are all skills you will need to master to minimise the risks in the mountains in winter.

    Skills – General

    The technical skills above are just the beginnings of what you will need to know to expedite yourself safely up and down mountains in winter. These things can be learnt in different ways – by taking a course, climbing with experienced partners and getting out on your own. If you don't have the skills yourself you can go out with experienced partners or hire a guide.The latter may be expensive, but very much worth it in terms of improved safety and peace of mind. 

  • Experience

    The amount and quality of previous experience you will need will depend on many factors, but should be taken into consideration before you set off on a climb.Getting experience on easy routes in different places and conditions will give you a good grounding for more difficult climbs. 
  • Mountain Sense

    This can only be earned, not book learned. Practice navigation in poor conditions in the summer in an unfamiliar area.Go winter walking on relatively easy ground on the less remote hills of Snowdonia or the Lakes using Crampons where needed.Go out in poor conditions and navigate! Go winter walking in Scotland and make sure you cover Grade I terrain. Anyone serious about staying safe walking in Scotland in the winter should have the skills and awareness to recognise and safely deal with the hazards posed by Grade I ground. More about Grading here.
  • Fitness:

    This cannot be underestimated for winter climbing in particular. Naturally, the fitter you are for any sport, the better a position you will be in. Winter climbing often involves walk-ins upwards of 1.5 hrs, so the fitter you are the quicker you’ll get to the start of the climb and in better condition for climbing well on the route too. 
  • Preparation

    This covers things such as what food you pack, your headtorch, gear, weather, avalanche awareness.  It's about preparedness, physically and psychologically, for your day out.
  • Equipment

    Clothing, hardwear (axes, crampons & compatible boots), maps, compass, guidebook, headtorch, emergency shelter… the list can become endless, depending on the scale of your winter climbing ambitions.  If you go for everything new, then it can be a pricey affair, but, like all pastimes, you can buildit up gradually and it is sometimes possible to pick up items second hand on forums or through club members if you join a mountaineering club.  You should always check everything, even new items, thoroughly, before use and after use.  When Mixed Climbing, your gear can be placed under a lot of stress (banging your nuts into cracks tends to leave them dented!), so checking them regularly for deformation and damage is important. You will also need specialised gear for mixed and ice routes and at some point will need to learn the basics about maintaining winter gear, like sharpening crampons and axes. 
  • Efficiency

    Learn to be efficient in all aspects of your summer climbing and walking and you will reap the rewards in winter. What do I mean by this? I have an example: If you undertake a 6 pitch route and the time on each belay gets extended by only 10 minutes (perhaps due to messy ropework, knots or miscommunication), then the additional hour (6 belay points x 10 mins = 60 mins) can have a profound impact on your descent.  The addition of an hour to your route time could mean descending the first difficult gully in dusk, taking an extra 40 or 45 minutes.  When you reach the bottom of the gully, in total darkness, with snow lashing down, you need to get out your map and compass to navigate down. This could add a further 1, 2, 3 or more hours to your descent on top of the 1hr 45mins of lateness already encountered. If you've not accounted for these possibilities you could be in for a long night! Efficiency, planning and awareness are important. 
  • Conditions – Weather awareness / Avalanche awareness

    MWIS, the Mountain Weather Information Service, provides up to date weather information for the UK and SAIS, the SportScotland Avalanche Information Service, provides Avalanche information for Scotland. However, weather is changeable and it always poses risks. Your ability to interpret forecasts and being attuned to changes in the weather will assist you in making good decisions in the mountains. You can learn this by attending courses, speaking to experienced winter climbers or personal research in libraries or online. 
  • Route Knowledge

    If you're planning a route with a long walk-in (and walk-out!), then it will help if you have researched routes in the area in which you plan to climb. You need to be prepared to back off a route and come back another day no matter how frustrating an experience that may be. In winter, conditions can be very variable within a small geographical area, so you may not be able to do the route planned and you might need to be flexible. Having a map and guidebook to hand is usually the best option. In a more general sense, being aware of the grading of winter climbs will help you to make more informed decisions about whether you have the skills needed to undertake a certain level of climbing. This is part of the preparation you will develop through experience and research.
  • Communication

    Good communication with your climbing partner is critical. Time is likely to be short and conditions more variable than in summer, and time spent trying to work out what your partner is doing during gale force winds at the top of a mountain could leave you benighted. It is even more important to shout every word individually rather than in a sentence: i.e CLIMB... WHEN... READY. It can also be useful to agree 'tugging signals' and terminology before departing. It's interesting that this applies to partners whom you know well and who are new to you; we very often overlook this aspect of climbing when its importance seems low, but in fact, good communication is something that can help avoid incidents and accidents. The Womenclimb website has a great article about climbing communication: Ten ways to communicate better when climbing.

These are tips that you must use in conjunction with training. It's not exhaustive and you should always exercise personal judgment when climbing.  Enjoy the outdoors, make good decisions and stay safe. 

Guest post by Emily Pitts. Emily has been climbing since 2010 and climbs both outdoors and indoors. Living close to the Peak District and Manchester means she has easy access to a great many crags on which to hone her trad climbing skills. She also climbs indoors when the weather is wet. Emily has recently started the website www.womenclimb.co.uk to help women get the most they can out of all aspects of climbing. 

Women Winter Walking